Pulp Pages spotlights the best of hardboiled and noir fiction of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.
“The streets were dark with something more than night,” Raymond Chandler once wrote. Cornell Woolrich, in his suspense noir classic Rendezvous in Black, takes it a step further by penetrating and calibrating that night where “the darkness changed only to another darkness.”
It’s a pessimistic viewpoint that may have grown out of Woolrich’s early life in New York City, where he was born in 1903 to soon-divorced parents. In the 1920s Woolrich wrote two critically well-received but commercially disappointing Jazz-Age novels, and experienced emotional devastation with a failed love and a brief, annulled marriage. With the advent of the Depression and with few career prospects Woolrich, living back with his mother in a Manhattan residential hotel — where he would die a recluse in 1968 — started writing for the pulp magazines.
Developing a taut and psychological intensity with over 100 stories, Woolrich was well-prepared to convey his dark themes of revenge, murder, and doomed romance when in the 1940s he began writing hardcover crime novels that often put him in the same league with Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. His so-called black series include such books as The Bride Wore Black, Black Alibi, Black Curtain, and Black Path of Fear.
One of the most nightmarish is 1948's Rendezvous in Black, with a stark and menacingly poetic and often elegiac tone commensurate to the consideration, “How could a thing that was so good become so bad … how could a thing that was so right become so wrong?”
That anything could be so good, and so right, was beyond question in the everyman and girl-next-door engagement of Johnny Marr and Dorothy, who first met “when she was seven and he was eight. And they’d first fallen in love when he was eight and she was seven. Sometimes it happens that way.”
And sometimes what is so bad and so wrong happens instead. When Dorothy suddenly, on a May 31st — the night before their wedding day — dies in a freak accident involving a low-flying charter plane and a group of drunken men, Johnny’s life is shattered. And no matter that only one man, unknown, is to blame, a now maniacal Marr plots vengeance on all five men.
But if “revenge is a dish best served cold,” Woolrich chills it down several degrees further as his cold-around-the-heart character doesn’t content himself with just killing each suspect. He wants them to live and endure the same mental anguish as — on May 31st of each year — he exacts retribution upon their loved ones, leaving taunting notes that ask, “Now you know what it feels like. So how do you like it?”
In Rendezvous in Black’s accumulative, page-turning race-against-time, the twists and turns have their own twists and turns, and a reader can go for several pages of uncertainty as to which one of several possible scenarios is being played out, and by whom. Speaking of characters, it is a mark of Woolrich’s devilry-in-the-details craftsmanship that even the secondary personalities are as carefully considered and nuanced as the main protagonists and antagonists; surprisingly perhaps, Woolrich displays a keen and sympathetic understanding of women.
In any case, the only sure thing in this tense, any-which-way-but-lucid cat-and-mouse game — the pursuer is a seeming bumbler of a Colombo-like detective — is the portentous and perennial despair of darkness and shadow that allows for no shades of gray. Each rendezvous is truly a date with a dimming destiny bearing down by any means necessary: “A train of death. A cavalcade of doom. Dozens of black cars, scores of them; shaking the rails, shaking the night…”
Even ostensible refuge and escape may comprise wasted effort: “And now they were on a ship, coursing deep water, crossing an ocean between two worlds. The eternal darkness was still around her…”
Then it closes in: “Night came on in her heart. One by one, all the lights went out. It got cold, and a wind from nowhere knifed at her. Her step didn’t falter; outwardly there was nothing to show that, within her, the whole world was going down into blackness.”
Into, indeed, a dark with something more than night, a darkness that changes only to another darkness.